Friday, April 29, 2011

Pomp & Ceremony and a Lohem!

Today was a day for pomp and circumstance. In London, a prince married his girl as hundreds of folks wore crazy hats and millions more tuned in around the world. South of Tel Aviv, by a modest memorial to Israel's fallen paratroopers, I was awarded the pins that affirm I am a combat soldier in the special-forces of the Paratroop Brigade. Ceremony, celebration, and then a picnic with dear friends and family.

The ceremony itself was fairly anticlimactic. For all the excitement of sharing my accomplishment with my parents, kibbutz family, cousin and garin friends, it has been two weeks since the rising sun atop Masada proclaimed the end of my training and welcomed me into the ranks of a lohem in the army of Israel. As I waited in the sun this morning to get my pins, I did my best to close my eyes and remember my descent from Masada, when my heart swelled with emotion that a little boy who had dreamt of heroes like Hanna Senesh and Yoni Netanyahu now had taken their place as a defender of the Jewish people. It was fitting that Hanna's words were proclaimed atop the memorial at my back: A voice called and I went, I went for the voice called.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Misakem Maslul: Lohem at Last!

We made our way along that lonely plain like men who seek the right path they have lost, counting each step a loss till it is found.
Dante, Purgatorio

As I feared, this week was a maelstrom of misery. In the first thirty hours I came closer to giving up than ever before in my service. All week I battled demons that ripped at my failure to help my peers. Yet when I stood atop Masada, after a hundred hours of doubt and despair, one word said it all: LOHEM. My goal from the day I decided to enlist in the army of Israel, finally accomplished. Finally, I am a combat soldier in the IDF.

Two days before the start of my final misakem, the commander of Sayeret Tzanchanim laid down marching orders: Do not count down to finishing the misakem. Instead make each hike, every exercise, your personal showpiece of all the skills and commitment you posses as a future lohem.

I wanted to take the commander at his word. Yet the stomach illness I have been fighting off for four weeks refused to provide much of a breather. For the first thirty hours of the misakem my own ills hardly seemed to matter. With one hundred pounds of gear strapped to my back, the fifty kilometers hiked over the first night and day brought me closer to quitting than I thought was possible. The march only paused for the rare live fire exercise, treasured opportunities to slough off heavy packs and wage war with a comparatively light combat vest. Marching at night is tolerable, with the cool night air and the nameless darkness allowing soldiers to slip into a dreamlike pace. But the endless kilometers under the daytime sun were plain agony. Every part of my body took turns crying out in pain, from the soles of my feet, to my knees, groin, waist, back, shoulders and even my head thanks to the ungainly helmet planted up top.

Twice a day, and once during the night, our march continued with weighted stretchers. Stretcher hikes force a squad to work together, four soldiers shouldering the heavy load while their peers provide encouragement and replacements when necessary. From my earliest military tryout (gibush), stretcher hikes have been one of my strengths, a difficult part of training I really savor. This week proved an exception. My passion for the trying hikes was AWOL. The resilience I rely upon to remain under a stretcher for endless eons was a mute shadow of more glorious times. This week I was the weak man, the one others rushed to switch out from the stretcher. Hating my weakness was no help. A long sleepless week forced me to find encouragement in other avenues, acknowledge modest victories when the challenges I would otherwise tackle remained beyond my grasp.

A hundred hours after I began the misakem on a windy Saturday night, Masada burst into view. The marches and the stretchers, the helicopters and the jeeps, the urban raids and hillside battles, the daytime heat and the bitter Tuesday night cold, the tuna and the halva, the course makim soldiers whom I am not one of that joined our final march... all are memories of the misakem I will gladly forget. The memory I cannot abandon is the final ascent of Masada. When I stepped under the lead stretcher and refused to let go. When a visiting officer grabbed my hand and pulled my arm, as the rest of me held on, to the mountaintop. And when my team stepped through the arch that frames the entrance to the summit, an arch that left trainees behind and turned each of us into a lohem in the army of Israel.

Doubts at Training's End

Why do misakem maslul? My officers do not respect me, few of my peers see me as more than an easy target of mockery (thanks to my poor Hebrew and infamous poisoning) and my poor health could likely pose problems in the difficult week to come. Why put my health on the line? For who? For what?

Such was my mindset in the days before my final week of training. Misakem maslul, the long promised end to serving as a lowly trainee, was starting Saturday night. I had returned to base on Thursday after two days of sick leave. My officers, still smarting from the harsh words exchanged when I first fell ill during the misakem prat, did little to hide the smug disdain they had adopted since I informed them my illness was a result of my own mistake. Stupid foreigner, said their lips. Serves him right, said their eyes.

The guys in my unit were merciless in their mockery. I expected no better. Nevertheless, a friend's mockery has a warmth that is absent in the absence of friendship. The guys on my team are close with each other. But we are more like brothers than friends, conjoined twins minus any culture of kinship. Living and working together makes for an easy camaraderie. Yet the trust and care of friendship is rare within our ranks.

My sorry health had highlighted the isolation I feel within my unit. And so with a grueling week of training starting in two days, I was torn with doubts as to why I should put my health on the line for a place and persons beyond my concern.

Hamas quickly put my doubts to rest. On Thursday afternoon the Gaza based Islamist party fired an anti-tank guided missile at an Israeli school-bus. By chance the bus was nearly empty, as the bus was near the end of its route when the missile struck (the sole student on board, a sixteen year old boy, was the lone casualty). Had the bus been full, the devastating massacre would almost assuredly have pushed Israel to the brink of open war with Hamas. As it was, for several hours on Thursday evening my unit was readied for the outbreak of hostilities. Until Israel decided in the early morning hours on a limited response, it seemed likely that my final week of training would be replaced by real fighting down in Gaza.

The near transformation of next week's battles from training to a real conflict removed any doubts I had about participating in the misakem maslul. Had my unit been posted to Gaza, neither my poor health nor frayed personnel relations could have dissuaded me from fully participating. I would go because my country needs me. Because there are folks who do believe in me, or at least who still have what to learn from my success and failures. Folks like my family, friends and even the occasional blog reader like yourself.

The doubt I was not able to shake is that I would not be able to excel in the final misakem. My weak health meant I would simply have to focus on getting through the week rather than making the week something special. Mired in such doubts, I found some comfort in marathon memories. The marathon I ran in May 2009 taught me that success in long races is not about setting records as much as finishing great distance, running well, and appreciating the friends and family that tune into my struggles on the track. The lesson seems to be that there are things--challenges, relationships--worth having, doing, salvaging, even if they are not performed at the ideal level. Man plans and God laughs. Sometimes rolling with what is makes a stronger statement than waiting for what could.


Following the misakem, our officer said the takeaway lesson is to excel in everything we do in life. My experience this week left me with something of the opposite lesson. The misakem taught me that there are things one must do, challenges to overcome, where excelling may not be possible yet it is still necessary to press forward. Not everything turns out the way it should. A humbling yet necessary lesson of progress.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

So You Have a Sense What is Happening Now

With all the backlog hereabouts, I want to post a quick note on what is actually happening right now in my service.

This last month saw a succession of m'sakmim, especially intense weeks designed to test and conclude our many months of training. The final and most severe week starts this Saturday night and runs through Thursday morning, when the last stretcher hikes concludes atop Masada and yours truly (if all goes according to plan) will finally be marked as a loham in the IDF. Needless to say, the time to tell stories and share hoorays comes after the doing is done. So for further details on next week, wait till it is in the past.

Coffee, Carrots and the Ties that Bind

I do not like coffee. Nor do I drink it much. But I respect ceremony, and know a cultural landmark when I taste one. Sitting down to drink a small cup of sweet Turkish coffee in the army is about brotherhood, tradition and that most respected of IDF principles, tash (Israeli slang for the good things in the military: eating, chilling and the like). Drinking coffee in the army works along the same lines of the coffee breaks Israelis love to take on hikes. One of the kibbutz or national religious kids whips out a fanny pack with chipped glasses, a propane gas stove and a small pot. Coffee powder and much sugar is added, vaffelim (wafers) are produced, and the sweet, syrupy, piping hot mix is passed around a short time later.

Another thing I do not especially like is barbed wire. Like coffee, for better or worse, barbed wire also has its moments in the life of a soldier. A pause in my unit's relentless string of misakmim, a week of field training randomly scheduled in the midst of this month's three rigorous final exercises, unexpectedly showcased both the sweet drink and the sharp wiring. With few drills to work on, my guys spent more time drinking coffee than playing soldier. When we did strike out into the undergrowth, barbed wire was our most dangerous foe. Men returned from the field with pants torn and hands bleeding, stern legacies of a foe that was only forgotten after a few extra cups of especially sweet java.

My guys and I were not the only ones eating and chilling the week away. On our first day in the wilderness, a gargantuan dumpster drove up and emptied millions of carrots around our tents. No one had any idea why someone had decided to turn the ground orange. The answer came the next morning when we were awoken by the sound of moos and the smell of fresh cow pie. We had pitched camp, it seemed, on the grounds of the annual carrot eating cow confab. Without permission to pitch our camp elsewhere, there was nothing to do but try our best to drill and chill alongside the carrots and cattle.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Misakem Tzevet: From the Sidelines

Misakem Tzevet, the team finale, is the runt of the three final weeks of training. Without the navigation and Krav Maga highlights of misakem prat, and minus the glorious finish that comes with misakem maslul, this middle misakem has to work to attract attention. Our commanders' response is to have us carry nearly one hundred pounds of gear on our back, and locate the four day exercise in a mosquito filled corner of the Jordan Valley. The mosquitoes were my only concern. Per doctor's orders, I was kept out of active training for the rest of the week. While my peers sweated and suffered, I packaged their food supplies in field headquarters and, despite prior warning, infected a fifth of my unit with my parasite by week's end.

At first I was crushed when the doctor informed me five hours before H-Hour that I was not cleared to participate. Adrenaline to tackle the difficult week with my peers had distracted me from my lingering stomach illness. As the testosterone faded, I found reason to embrace my medical exemption. Had I participated, my illness would have ensured that I suffered more than most in a week that does not really serve any higher purpose beyond breaking our knees and backs one step further. Not participating carries the risk of having to redo this misakem with the next draft class (August 2010 draftees), since soldiers are in theory required to complete every misakem in order to be recognized as a lohem (several soldiers from previous draft classes have joined us for our current misakmim). I have already been warned that my failure to complete the past week means I will have to redo misakem prat with the August 2010 class. These rumors mean nothing to me. I will no longer be in the army when the next draft class begins their misakmim this October. So bugger all, not doing the misakem tzevet does not carry much meaning to yours truly.

The doctor had granted me gimelim on base, a subset of the two medical exemptions a soldier can be tagged with in the army. Bettim means a soldier is unable to participate in most physical training yet he remains in the army. Gimelim is for more serious illnesses, anything contagious, and normally means a soldier is sent home to recuperate. Gimelim on base means a soldier is exempt from everything yet stays on base. I had never received a day of bettim nor gimelim in my service. So the whole system felt strange to finally be a part of.

Despite the doctor's orders, my superiors decided I would spend the week in the field, preparing equipment and covering sentry duties at the field-camp set up to manage the misakem. Boredom and bugs best describes a week I would like to forget. My only contribution to the week was, as I had warned my commanders, to pass on a milder form of my diarrhea disease to a quarter of my company.


At the end of the week I discovered that an IDF soldier was attacked less than two kilometers from the Jordan Valley field-camp I had guarded all week. The soldier was standing along Highway 90 when a Palestinian hit him over the head with a rock and tried to steal his gun. A police officer came to the rescue and shot and arrested the assailant. Combined with the rockets coming from Gaza and the horrifying terrorist attack at a bus station in Jerusalem, and there are more than enough signs to suggest the military may be taking a more active role in events in the near future.

Setting Our Stomachs in Order

No Israeli military mission, simulated or otherwise, takes place without no'el krav, battle procedures, a step by step list of activities that prepares troops for the coming battle. With Saturdays set aside as the day of rest, Friday March 18 was the only day available to prepare for our misakem tzevet. We must put this past week's misakem prat behind us, warned our commander late on Thursday night, because tomorrow is going to be very busy, our only chance to make sure we are ready for the horrors that await next week. No'el krav from sunup till sundown. Get ready.

Reality dawned the next morning. Our commander was tied up in meetings, the guys were tied down in their bedsheets, and no prep work of any kind was attempted. Until noon. Everyone was lazing around at midday when word got out that an expedition would be heading out to purchase snack-foods. Within seconds energy emerged from lethargy, as guys ran around writing shopping lists, finding loose change and arguing with everybody else about the right cookies, cereal and cigarettes to order. The sudden carnival was nothing compared to the business that erupted when the goodies arrived hours later. Guys pawed through the plastic shopping bags, grabbing what they could, complaining when they could not and finding a hundred and one reasons to complicate the poor souls who vainly tried to bring order to the chaotic market scene. Shabbat arrived as the final food lists were checked off and the last vaffelim and Nesteas (slang terms for the wafer snacks and Nestea iced tea drinks consumed in mind boggling amounts by Israeli soldiers) were parceled out. No battle planning for us. No'el tash (pleasure procedures, from the army acronym TaSH, t'nai sherut) had vanquished no'el krav this Friday.

Navigation 101

On a navigation several years ago, two soldiers from Sayeret Matkal (elite unit with a storied history, devoted to counter-terrorism and field intelligence gathering) split up at the bottom of a hill, one ascending the summit to collect their nav-point while the other rested below. The soldier resting developed heat stroke. When he radioed his partner about his condition, the soldier climbing the mountain immediately turned and ran back. On his way down, the healthy soldier also began to weaken and developed heat stroke as well. The two soldiers were in serious condition when they were finally evacuated and attended to hours later.
LESSON: Heroism of Sayeret Matkal soldiers done in by overconfidence and excessive individualism (splitting up is against the rules during a two-person navigation).

During a misakem for Duvdevan (elite unit devoted to urban combat) two soldiers were ascending Mount Arbel when one lost track of the other. He failed to realize his partner had disappeared until he reached the summit. By the time the second soldier was found he had already succumbed to heat stroke and died.
LESSON: Duvdevan operatives are cold-hearted killers, even to their own kind.

In the middle of a misakem, several soldiers in Sayeret Tzanchanim hitched rides to a nearby bar, where they drank and made merry until a suspicious patron informed their superiors and the soldiers were apprehended and punished.
LESSON: Sayeret Tzanchanim...good grief.

These are the three tachkirim (case studies) that Israeli special forces soldiers are presented with before misakmim. If there is a better way at capturing the free spirited attitude that reigns in my unit, especially relative to other top units, I would like to hear it. Woot woot, unit pride!

The joke during the last month of my training is that each misakem marks the final exercise for the skills tested in the given misakem. Misakem Krav Maga, for instance, means no more Krav Maga sessions. Misakem Maslul means our entire maslul, shorthand for our fourteen months of training, is finally finished. Even Misakem Tzevet (the team finale) is interpreted in jest as suggesting the team ethic that bound us together through our training can now be abandoned.

If there is one skill-set my peers are eager to see left behind by the misakmim, it is navigation. Few soldiers favor navigation exercises. Part of the reason is they simply are poor navigators, lacking either the will or the wherewithal to avoid getting lost in unfamiliar surroundings in the dark of the night. The rest of the story is that military navigation is about more than having a feel for hidden valleys and a head for memorizing endless azimuths. Navigation means trekking long distances up and down steep summits in the freezing nighttime wind, shouldering a heavy pack that has no interest in hunting down hidden nav-points. Successful navigators must have the pathfinding mastery of a Davy Crockett, the alpine endurance and iron back of a Nepali Sherpa, and the diligence of a Vilna Gaon. Or they can simply read the following pointers from yours truly, a passionate veteran of many a military navigation.

1) Prep

A navigation does not begin at the designated starting point in the wilderness. It begins the moment the soldier is issued a map and assigned the coordinates for the start, end and nav-points he must collect en route. After labeling these points on his map with a compass-like device (called a madko in IDF slang), the soldier maps out the best route that will lead him to all his points. The ideal route is as short as possible and covers terrain that is easy to cross (flatlands better than hills; wooded undergrowth best to avoid at all costs) and no problem to follow in the wilderness (a route along a valley is far more reliable than one that crisscrosses hills).

The final challenge is to memorize whatever information will insure the soldier can follow his preplanned route in the wilderness. Since IDF navigation training operate without a map and a route may be over forty kilometers, dividing the route into short sections is essential for effective recall. Once a route is sectioned off, soldiers are advised to calculate the azimuth (direction), distance and relevant topographical terrain that will be covered en route. It can also be helpful to record the particular topographical information that indicates the end of a section or the presence of a given nav-point. These four or five categories are best recorded on paper in graph form, though the bottom line is all the information must be memorized and so every soldier has their own preference for imprinting all that information up top. Before sitting for a mandatory brief with an officer, where the soldier describes his entire route from memory as the officer follows along on a map, the soldier must also memorize local settlements and the topographical or man-made (highways) borders to the navigation.

There is no telling how much prep time a soldier will have before a given navigation. So building and memorizing a route sometimes must happen in less than ideal circumstances. The three-night eighty kilometer long navigation for my misakem prat followed two days of prep. While one of these days was shabbat, leading some religious soldiers to refuse to study weekday materials per an especially strict interpretation of religious law, I took full advantage of all the time. I managed to finish writing down all the details of my route before shabbat. And on the day of rest itself, I locked myself in a empty room and orally repeated my entire route step by step. The trick is to make the navigation into a story, and then repeat that story to yourself endlessly until the details on the map are burned into your deepest memory.

2) Paths

A good route is based around topography yet runs along existing paths whenever possible. The reasoning is simple: topography is immutable, so if there is a valley running from points A to B, your route can follow the valley with no fear that the valley has ceased to exist. Paths are unreliable creatures of man-particularly in the dark of night. Yet they are far more agreeable to walk on than the sticky mud and horrid undergrowth that often fill the in-between places. Few maps indicate if a valley is full of thorns and mud. Unless one has hiked the valley in the past, it is best to avoid entering the valley itself and instead find some sort of path that follows alongside.

I suffered from a lack of paths during the early goings of the misakem prat. My first nav-point was impossible to miss: a small hut on the western side of a five-hundred meter long pentagon shaped fish pool. The nav-point was nine kilometers along flat terrain from the start of the navigation, and a series of canals and paths had me confident I would cover this first stretch in good time. Poor logistics and a sea of mud played havoc with such ideas. An expiring bus visa forced the navigation to commence two kilometers east from the point on which I had built my entire route. Starting elsewhere threw my route off from the get-go. The all-too friendly looking canals did not help. Instead of guiding me towards my nav-point, they became impassable sentries I could not skip across in my efforts to salvage my savaged route. My paths also disappeared, swallowed up by pools of mud courtesy of the recent rain.

3) Rain-pants (Hal'fas Tachtone)

If there is any chance you may have to cross open fields over an evening's navigation-regardless of whether it has rained recently or not- it pays to don army issued rain-pants. Otherwise the tall grass and crops will leave you soaked in dew. Wearing rain-pants from the beginning empowers you to take shortcuts across open fields, cut through thorny bushes and even slide down muddy banks.

I was the lone soldier to don rain-pants on the first night of the navigation. My decision paid off when my path to my first nav-point disappeared and I found myself sinking in a dry quicksand like pool of mud. The pants kept the worst of the gunk away. Later the rain-pants allowed me to strike off through a field of two meter high wheat soaked in enough dew to leave my lower half wetter than a raindrop.

4) Live on the Edge - with Caution!

My foreign travel experience has taught me that I take far more risks traveling alone than with a partner. Solo navigation plays to this tendency, encouraging (me at least, to take) wild detours and unnecessary risks. The cautious navigator plays it safe, doing whatever is necessary to stick to his preplanned route. Another sort of navigator--carefree, confident, call it what you will- welcomes unplanned shortcuts.

Shortly after nabbing my first nav-point, my way forward was blocked by the ubiquitous canals. I could have followed my route and walked alongside the waterway until a distant crossing. Instead I sashayed my way across two drainage pipes, dragging my gun, backpack and a half-expressed wish that neither I nor they would drop into the water below. A second crossing later in the navigation went one step further, taking me right into a drainage pipe! Shortly after dawn, I reached a mandatory highway crossing. There was no one present to part the cars and direct me past traffic. Waiting instead was a muck filled drainage pipe, stretching for forty yards underneath the highway and the proscribed way to get to the other side. For the second time I placed my pack and gun before me and pushed and crawled towards the orbit of light waiting on the far side.

5) Return the Way you Came

The straightest line between any two points is not always the quickest. More times than not it pays to return to a main path the same way you left it rather than try a shortcut that covers less ground. The reason is that every path through the wilderness may be riddled with unexpected obstacles. A barbed wire fence, drainage pipes, impassable undergrowth, heck enemy troops if this navigation is no longer just a game. Best to avoid such surprises even if that means covering more ground.

I have learned this lesson the hard way, with two unforgettable valley crossings (my American Eagle and Crouching Tiger Sumo experiences are what I have in mind!) teaching me that trying to take a shortcut through uncharted territory is rarely a good idea. Nonetheless, I made the same error the first night of the misakem prat. Having nabbed my second nav-point with ease, I stood atop a hilltop in sight of my next goal, a nearby mandatory highway crossing. I could double-back the way I had come and descend the hill in the opposite direction of the highway. Or I could pick my way over the rocks and make a bee-line down the hill towards the highway. I chose the latter. My choice almost did me in when in the inky darkness I failed to notice that my chosen descent had come to an end at a fifty foot cliff edge. Barely avoiding the drop, I was forced to take a detour through thorns, over a barbed wire fence and through a cattle barn in order to reach my destination.

6)Rules Don't Mean Anything if You do Not Know When to Break Them

IDF navigation training is full of rules (no maps, no joining with other soldiers, no entering settlements or traversing highways outside of defined crossing points, etc) designed to make sure that the time devoted to navigation is actually spent navigating. Few soldiers follow all the rules all the time. This is especially true in my unit, which as I once wrote even has a song celebrating how black as sin we proudly are. Songs aside, I am not suggesting that the wise navigator break the rules indiscriminately. Navigating with an open map makes a mockery of the very reason for navigation training. That said, there are times when it pays to slip into the black mindset and smudge the rules. Unfortunately, to stand out and stay safe a soldier can not always stay within the narrow confines of proscribed reality. Sometimes he must look out for his own interests and make reality as he wills it.

I crossed into the nether realm of what is allowed midway through the first night of the misakem. En route to a mandatory highway crossing, I checked for cars and crossed the road on my own. I did so in order to nab a nav-point that lay on the other side of the highway. While this point was designed to be my final nav-point of the navigation, collecting it now by quickly slipping across the road shaved ten kilometers off my route. Few of my peers had any intention of investing the hours in searching out more distant nav-points. And so I knew that if I had any interest in hunting down all my nav-points and reaching the end within the same time of my peers, I could not pass up such low lying fruit. As it is, I was one of the very last soldiers to finish the first night's navigation after hunting down every last nav-point, the only soldier to successfully do so.

7) Staying in Character

Commanders always ask that their soldiers embrace the fiction that training exercises are in fact authentic missions, taking place in enemy territory rather than the safe confines of the Negev desert or the Galilee hillsides. The idea is to adopt a more engaged mindset, one that recognizes that the slightest slip-up can have real consequences. Staying in character can be difficult over a grueling three day navigation. But just as in gibushim, when I imagined I was digging for buried treasure during trench digging drills, the payoff for weaving a fantasy into the everyday is immeasurable.

Rather than pretend I was navigating through enemy territory, my choice of fictions during the misakem was Tolkein. Hiking through threatening forests, steely hills and vacant valleys, my mind drifted into realms of hobbits and elves. Like Frodo and Sam, I could see myself on a journey against time, shouldering a burden whose weight only grew as the end grew closer. It was not difficult to slip into the realm of the fantastic during the final stretch of the first night's navigation. The last few kilometers in the valley of Hilazon took me threw an ancient grove of olive trees south of Mount Gilon. The trees were more alive than anything I saw all week, swaying and dancing in the green field like folk dancers, twisting in agony like the most damned creations on Rodin's Gates of Hell. Passing through the grove lit my mind afire even as their aching trunks impelled me to race onward lest my feet take root in the ground and another lost soul join the ranks of their eternal waltz.

8) Stay Hydrated

The most tiresome part of military navigating is the heavy pack strapped to the soldier's back. The weight acts as a bad conscience, willing the soldier to take frequent rests, not waste time on nav-points and make a bee-line for the end. The same voice whispers to reduce the weight by any means possible. Who needs six liters of water, murmurs the pain in your shoulders, three liters will do, especially since one can refill their three-liter waterpack at the frequent mandatory crossing points. Heeding this voice is a very bad idea. What the soldiers who empty their spare water bottles to lighten their load do not realize is that the water they carry is not there to make them tougher but to save their life. Hydration is critical during a long solo navigation when a wrong turn or a logistical snafu by the organizers means the simple soldier must rely on the supplies he carries. Dehydration is one of the deadlier threats on a long navigation. Defeating this enemy means withstanding the pain in your knees and paying regular visits to the water on your back.

If there is one thing my peers have called me out for throughout my service it is my commitment to staying hydrated. I am the soldier who is rarely seen around base without a spare water bottle, who brings extra water on long bus rides so everyone will have what to drink once the trip gets underway. So it was ironic when I ran out of water during the final stretch of the first night's navigation. Nearing the Hilazon Valley, my knees began to shake as my vision blurred, early signs of dehydration. I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me when a flowing stream came into view. As I approached the Shagar riverbed, I reminded myself that many water sources in the wild are polluted and make unsafe drinking water. Yet when I crossed the running water, the clear color and flowing stream deceived me into thinking a few sips would be all right.

These few sips would be my undoing, unleashing a parasite within me that destroyed my misakem prat and made me the laughingstock of my unit. The bitter irony is that twenty meters past the stream I ran into a friendly Bedouin farmer who filled my bottles with clean water and whose silent grandmother made us coffee and insisted I sit and admire the rising sun with them for a good quarter hour. My time with the two Bedouin would in retrospect be the highpoint of my navigation experience as a soldier, closing out a rich chapter in my service that was not always easy yet provided me with many of the most perceptive insights into my brief army career.

Misakam Prat: Great Expectations Ground Under

This past month marked the last stretch in my unit’s fourteen months of training, three weeks of especially intense exercises (known as misakmim, finals; singular: misakem) designed to test our accumulated toughness and skills. First up was misakem prat (individual final), a busy week that judged the individual soldier on the four pillars of training: navigation, shooting, weapons systems & Krav Maga. Next misakem tzevet (team final), when my eighteen man team dragged stretchers and conquered hillsides over four sleepless nights in the Jordan Valley. Finally, in every sense of the word, I concluded my training with a company wide week of hurting known as misakem maslul ('journey's end' is my poetic translation of choice).

For college grads (the few, the proud!), the whole shebang evokes college finals, those last few weeks of the semester when all-nighters and intense cram sessions are the norm. Just as final exams excite students with the promise of impending vacation, the misakmim had my army peers thrilled with the knowledge that our training is nearly over. While I am as eager as anyone to leave training behind, my own excitement was mixed with the hope that the rigor of the misakmim would reignite an urge to excel that has slipped in recent weeks.

The first week, misakem prat, is the best chance to make a personal statement. Teamwork is set aside for five days in order to highlight the strengths of the individual soldier. The main skill on display is navigation, otherwise known as trekking for hours through the night without a map and with over fifty percent body weight carried along for the ride. The navigation for the misakem is a three night affair that crosses the Galilee from sea (Mediterranean) to shining sea (Kineret). Each soldier is assigned four points hidden across thirty plus kilometers of hills and valleys. Every morning we are expected to arrive at a designated endpoint where we join a few other soldiers and spend the day in a hastily built forest hideaway. Daytime is a chance to rest and eat between guard shifts. By mid-afternoon our bags are back on our back and the next evening's navigation gets underway. On the morning of the third day, after wandering over eighty kilometers and ascending several of the highest peaks in the Galilee, the navigation concludes on the shores of the Kineret. While the navigation is over, the hardest ordeal of the week awaits in a final, fiendish baltam: a four hour ascent in the heat of the day of Mizpeh Yamim, a 720 meter high peak a few kilometers northwest of the Kineret.

Waiting on the summit are two buses. They ferry us back to base for a quick meal and four precious hours of exhausted sleep. We go to bed with the knowledge that at the stroke of midnight, six hours of hell will begin. Also known as the Krav Maga finale, the all-night feast of bruising fistfights is consciously designed to take place with our bodies as weak as soggy toast. Whatever strength we have left is beaten to a pulp during a first hour of wind-sprints and pushup crawls. The rest of the night is about running the gauntlet and round after round of kravot (gauntlet? kravot? see here). Shortly before dawn, the religious soldiers escape so they can put some food and water down before the start of a fast day (Ta'anit Esther) that will prevent them from eating or drinking for the next twelve hours. When the secular guys join them them two hours later, everyone is given a few minutes break before all-day tests on shooting and weapon system know-how get underway. By mid-afternoon everyone is wasted. Five days of scant food, little rest and incomparable physical stress made a band of once formidable fighters into wax zombies.

So the week went. For everyone else, at least. My own misakem prat is a very different story.

My misakem experience began like everyone else. Hours of studying over the previous shabbat paid off during the early goings of the navigation. With one night left, I was the only soldier in my seventy man company to have collected every nav-point. My success was as much about commitment as skill, the former a rare commodity this week. I was one of a handful of soldiers to collect more than half their assigned nav-points, with most guys making no pretense of the fact that the only point they looked for each night was the endpoint.

My peer's widespread apathy was not going to slow me down. Something inside of me had already taken care of that. Shortly after settling in for some rest before the final night of navigation, I awoke with the feeling that someone had just thrown up on me. What should have remained a dream quickly became reality when I started retching uncontrollably. For the next five hours my body paid the most painful of homages to Old Faithful - every twenty minutes I would double over and water would erupt from my mouth. With so much water and body heat leaving my body, my temperature and hydration level dropped. A medic tried opening my veins so he could set me up with an IV. He tried seven times, accomplishing nothing besides bloodying my elbows and reinforcing my hatred for needles.

The afternoon passed in misery. Freezing, bleeding and unable to stop throwing up, I was so weak that the thought of returning to my base (two hours distance) filled me with dread. Until I heard what my superiors had in store for me. The deputy company commander decided that I was simply dehydrated, and hence would sit in one of the open hummers for the night and wait to return to base with everyone tomorrow afternoon. I was too weak to laugh at such a ludicrous order. But I was not too far gone to attempt to reason with the twenty-two year old who clearly had no idea how sick I actually was.

After explaining that I was in no condition to drive around all night in an open vehicle (there was not a soul on the mountaintop that had not seen me puke my guts out over the last few hours) I asked if I could return to base. Then I suggested staying the night at the adjacent military base, a reasonable idea since we were less than a kilometer away from Michve Alon (a base nearly every foreign born soldier calls home for their first month of army service). Finally I asked for permission to spend the night recuperating at my kibbutz, only an hour away from our location atop Mount Hazon.

The deputy chief was not interested. And no other officer, from my own sergeant to the various lieutenants I thought I was on good terms with (my own lieutenant was absent), raised a finger in my defense. I had an idea why they were all acting like a herd of donkeys. Earlier in the day, before my waterworks began, the commander had chewed out the entire company, noting that dozens of guys had been complaining about aches and pains and it was time we man up and stop whining. He could not have been happy to see the best navigator of the week come forward with a new medical claim. As far as he was concerned, I was setting a bad example for the rest of the guys and had nothing wrong with me that skipping the next night's navigation would not solve.

While I knew what the officer was thinking, I did not particularly care. The bottom line was my deteriorating health and the zero confidence I had that the twenty-two year old telling me to spend the night driving through the freezing cold had any interest in my well-being. When I begged him once again to at least act with human decency, he responded that his order had nothing to do with him. This is the army, he shouted, this is how it works. Now shut up and get in the car.

I had no strength to argue. Yet when I heard what he said, that it was the army, some airy fairy other, that was prepared to subject me to such senseless abuse, I lost it. "What! Are you really blaming the army for what you are doing to me?! YOU are doing this, not some pie-in-the-sky system but you, a human being." The officer shouted at me to shut up. Naturally, I continued. "What you are saying reminds me of something I am ashamed to mention, something I would never suggest comparing to you or anyone in this army. But your blaming 'the system,' reeks of what so many Nazis claimed after the Holocaust. It was not us, the system did it..."

My Holocaust reference hit a raw nerve and the officer lost it. By then I was in too much pain to respond. When the officer told me to wait by the roadside for the hummer, I collapsed and nearly blacked out. I felt marooned on an island of pain, cut off from any reasonable or sympathetic human being.

Some time later the deputy commander's immediate superior showed up and declared I would in fact be immediately heading back to base. Before he would let me enter the waiting car, though, a final fiasco occurred. The commander blew his top when he caught sight of my attire, six hours of retching and freezing having led to several unorthodox changes in my wardrobe. Grabbing me by the shoulders, the officer shouted that I would not be going anywhere until I was properly dressed. My knees buckled and I would have fallen had the roaring buffoon not been shaking my shoulders over my unlaced shoelaces and lack of shirt (I was wearing a jacket instead). Somehow I made it into the car for the most painful two hour road trip of my life.

Back on base I threw up some more, got some rest and awoke the next morning feeling marginally better. My peers returned in the evening, rubbed raw from the final ascent up Mizpeh Yamim. I could only watch from the side as they struggled into sneakers hours later and ran off for six hours of Krav Maga. The misakem I had anticipated more than any other passed with me holding my stomach and trying to make sense of the week. My plans to excel transformed into a horrible mess of ruined health and angry superiors. Two days of navigation gold turned into medical malaise and outright verbal insubordination. Why now? Why me?

The irony is that I was one of the few soldiers who approached this week cleanly. Not only was I committed to finding all my navigation points, I heeded the rules and did not sneak along my cellphone. Few soldiers complied with this order. Some simply wanted to speak with girlfriends or listen to music over the course of the navigation. Most were not willing to rely on the faulty radios we carry and wanted a backup communication device in case they ran into real trouble. I brought along my cellphone on every previous navigation for both reasons. But this week, for the first time since I arrived and realized what an unprincipled mess navigation is in my unit, I went without. I wanted to believe, while testing myself over the course of the misakmim, that one can really play by all the rules and succeed. Instead I learned, as I fruitlessly argued with my twenty year old superiors for proper medical care, that not keeping an ace in hand is a fool's errand in this army.

In basic training, soldiers are taught to report their ailments to their superiors and then rely on their commanders to decide what they can safely do. These instructions form part of the unspoken contract between the army and the people of Israel: we give three years of our lives and the lives of our children with the assurance that the army goes to the utmost to treasure those lives. The rub is that an illogical bureaucracy and a flock of often unsympathetic officers are not only responsible for questions of life and death. They also have control over my life. They have the right to decide my decisions for me. Playing by all the rules means keeping all those decisions in their hands. That can be dangerous, a mistake I learned to my detriment this week.

Playing by all the rules this week was not my only mistake. It was a mistake to refer to the Holocaust while arguing with my superior. Never a good idea in a country built on too many painful histories. The rest of our argument, however, I would repeat again in a heartbeat. I have zero doubt that had I not stood up for myself, my commanders would have done with me what they liked and I may have suffered severe health consequences as a result. While I am prepared to suffer and even sacrifice my life as a soldier, I am not prepared to endure such trials for the sort of idiocy demonstrated this week.


My sickness lingered through the rest of the misakmim, leaving and returning in waves of nausea and intestinal irregularities. Eventually my officers took it seriously and a few medical examinations produced a diagnosis: Giardia, a diarrheal infection also known as beaver fever that operates like a less fatal form of dysentery.

It took me some time as well to realize where the infection had come from. And then I remembered taking a few sips from an innocent looking fast moving stream near the end of the first night's navigation. Out of water, and unable to make contact thanks to a broken radio, I was in dire straits when I made the fatal decision. The stream (Nachal Shagar), like nearly every waterway in Israel, is unsafe to drink from and most likely passed on the Giardia parasite.

It was not easy coming to terms with the fact that I brought this crippling illness on myself. It was no easier telling this to others, opening myself to the criticism of my superiors and the mockery of my peers. And yet I would not have it any other way. Identifying the source of my illness underlines a truism my father repeats to me at every opportunity: there are no accidents, only carelessness. In other words, the responsibility is in my hands. Despite the many ways in which the army robs a simple soldier like myself of decision making ability, nearly everything that happens to a soldier starts with him. This illness is just the latest, painful reminder that responsibility ultimately rests with me.

Funeral of Humbled Dreams

Three days. Rumors of my friend's passing have come to rest by a quiet grave outside Beit Shemesh. The last mourners file away, leaving me standing with a small pile of dirt by the valley of Ella, a green swathe of nature cutting across the brown hills like a mystical weapon of old.

Spring is about eternal hope. Wild greens emerging from a worn out winter. Long days encouraging us to step outside. Persephone returning from the underworld. The young lovers of Solomon's Song of Songs dreaming up ever more fruitful metaphors to describe their beloved.

Hope springs eternal. In our minds, at least. In the dreamworld where the rules of time have no sway. Not in the world I know, not in the world where a few months of sunny skies and green lawns are as transient as any work of man. Where winter is coming. Hades awaits. And even the Song of Songs, read according to Jewish tradition every spring, is in fact a heartrending tale of unfulfilled love.

Greek myth and Jewish texts were not on my mind as I paid respect at my friend's final resting place. I simply felt humbled, overwhelmed by the unexplainable loss and the verdant panorama my friend never again will savor. Ella Valley is where David felled Goliath and the legend of a messianic savior was born. The same valley where my friend first cultivated his dream of founding a vineyard in the land of Israel. Ella is a valley of visions birthed beyond easy fulfillment, a magical jade sword just out of reach from the gravestones that surround my friend.

I arrived at the funeral straight from my own field of battle. My unit was in the midst of an extended exercise, conquering hillsides and urban dens over the course of two sleepless nights. The late night fog of war masks more than the surroundings; emotions are set aside, fatigue brushed away while the world sleeps. Only the dawn of day reminds us where we are, waging war in a verdant wonderland, every charge risking the loss of soldiers whose green uniforms will be swallowed by the omnipresence nature.

The mother of my friend shared a memory at the funeral service of one day finding her young son with a small bird in his hands. When questioned, my friend admitted he was not quite sure how to heal the bird's broken wing. But he had no doubt that sheltering the wounded bird in his small hands, sharing a tangible sense of warmth and care, was the right thing to do. Not because he could grant the bird its dearest wish. Simply because in the near time, in the here and now between two souls, tuning in and lending a hand is what we can do in the face of the racing seasons and our humbled dreams.